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Vietnam veteran's search for peace began with angst over image

Chuck de Vlaming lost 18 friends in the war but never cried.

That was how you survived the skies above Vietnam. You shut everything out. Stress. Pain. Guilt. Pilots who lost control got shot down.

It was a difficult philosophy to apply to life after the war. Three failed marriages and arm's-length friendships attest to de Vlaming's emotional absence. Even those who got close described him as aloof, cold even.

One remnant of battle penetrated his psychological armor and tugged at him for years.

It was a photograph taken Dec. 10, 1972, from a camera mounted on the belly of his A-7 fighter plane. It showed the Vietnamese countryside below as de Vlaming dropped smoke bombs during an attempted rescue of a downed airman.

An image in the photo — small but unmistakable — pulled him back to Vietnam three decades later. He scaled the country in search of the place captured on film.

De Vlaming would finally get the answers he wanted, along with some he didn't.

On Dec. 9, 1972, a surface-to-air missile tore apart an American reconnaissance plane in the skies above Vietnam. Hector Acosta and Billie Joe Williams ejected as the Phantom fighter turned into a free-falling fireball.

Shrapnel ripped Acosta's right biceps and punched a dime-sized hole in his chest. A rib bone gleamed through the blood. Smoke billowed from his flight suit as he twirled to the ground in his damaged parachute.

When he landed, bullets whistled by his head. The 23-year-old Texan ran for his life, racing to higher ground before hiding in a patch of jungle. Williams was dead. The enemy left his body in a field as bait.

Acosta radioed for a rescue. He was told to stay hidden overnight.

The next morning, Chuck de Vlaming and a rescue force of more than 30 craft were in the air before sunrise. Only the most daring of pilots volunteered for search and rescue missions into North Vietnam, the most dangerous of aerial assignments.

The men in the crew were tight and cocky, but they could back it up. A month earlier, the squadron rescued two downed airmen from the clutches of the enemy, a feat that became legend in flying circles. The U.S. Air Force Museum later displayed the tattered, bullet-pocked plane flown by de Vlaming's flight leader.

Despite the danger, de Vlaming — a lanky, handsome 27-year-old with parted brown hair and a cackling laugh — had always dreamed of having a 10-ton, single-seat aircraft strapped to his backside. His father had been an aerial gunnery instructor with the Army Air Forces. As a boy, he watched fighters streak over the Atlantic Ocean on test runs, his face trembling when they broke the sound barrier. De Vlaming joined the Air Force ROTC in college and graduated fourth in his flight school class in 1969.

He was on his second tour of duty when he was dispatched to help rescue Hector Acosta.

The enemy soldiers could not find Acosta, but they knew he was close. They also knew a mass of planes and helicopters would come looking to rescue him and retrieve Williams' body. The Americans always came for their downed pilots.

De Vlaming and his fellow airmen were heading into an ambush.

• • •

The rescue planes pummeled the countryside. They blasted surface-to-air missile sites. High-powered Gatling guns flattened lines of enemy soldiers.

The Americans worked to cleanse the hot zone enough to bring in one of the rescue helicopters, called Jolly Green Giants. The Jollys were large and slow, vulnerable to fire.

The A-7s, or Sandys, which de Vlaming flew helped escort rescue helicopters into the hot zone. Some dropped white phosphorous smoke that shielded the Jollys from soldiers firing from the ground.

Below, enemy soldiers surrounded Acosta — some so close that he could hear their shoes crunch the earth and see their pith helmets through the brush. Rescue seemed impossible.

"Abort, abort," he whispered into his radio, but none of the dozens of pilots in the air above heard him. Then he turned off the radio out of fear that enemy soldiers would hear it squawking.

No one could get an exact fix on Acosta's location. Jolly pilot Lou Campbell hovered above where he thought Acosta was hiding. Over the radio, he yelled at Acosta, whose code name was Kansas 01 Bravo, to open a canister of orange smoke, pinpointing his location.

"Pop your smoke, babes. Pop your smoke," Campbell said. "Kansas, this is Jolly Green, do you have smoke? Do you have smoke?"

Acosta heard a helicopter, but saw only tiny patches of blue sky from his hiding place. He couldn't risk turning on his radio.

Campbell's voice rose.

"Kansas, talk me in, talk me in. I can't see you," he said. "Do you have smoke, Kansas? Pop your smoke!"

The mission deteriorated.

The flight leader ordered a smoke screen on a nearby ridge. As de Vlaming sped toward the ridge, another fighter pilot didn't see him. The other pilot launched his bombs as the two planes passed within feet of each other. De Vlaming pulled hard on the stick, putting his aircraft into a near-vertical climb, as he narrowly avoided getting blown out of the air by his fellow pilot.

Minutes later, a high-pitched alert screamed in de Vlaming's cockpit. The enemy had launched a surface-to-air missile. The rocket blasted past his cockpit and plunged into the jungle.

Back in the danger zone, Campbell's helicopter still hovered in search of Acosta. Enemy soldiers took aim.

"Ground fire, 3 o'clock!" Campbell yelled. "Okay, co-pilot's hit! Co-pilot's hit! I'm pulling out! I'm pulling out!

"I have no co-pilot, no co-pilot. Co-pilot's hurt bad! Co-pilot's hurt bad!"

De Vlaming and the other pilots peppered the ground with smoke to shield the retreating helicopter.

"Ground fire, 6 o'clock!" Campbell yelled. "We're taking gunfire from every one of these god d----- villages!"

Acosta could only listen as his best hope for rescue flew away.

• • •

The mission was a disaster.

Twenty-nine bullet holes pocked the helicopter, and one engine was shot out. Fuel spilled from a tank that was like a ripped plastic grocery bag.

Campbell's co-pilot took a bullet to his leg. The tailgunner was hit in the arm.

On the ground, dozens, maybe hundreds, of Vietnamese soldiers lay dead. Acosta was eventually taken prisoner, held at the infamous Hanoi Hilton and later released.

A few days after the rescue attempt, an intelligence officer approached de Vlaming with a glossy photo taken by the camera mounted on the underside of his plane. Intelligence officers frequently reviewed photos to assess damage to the enemy and locate their hideouts.

The photos showed part of a small village with a large rectangular building in the center. On top of the building was a cross.

It was a church.

"What, are you bombing churches now?" the intelligence officer said as a joke.

De Vlaming, though not a religious man, wasn't laughing. He couldn't believe what he was looking at. He hadn't noticed a church during the mission.

The Air Force had rules against bombing churches. Pilots could bend them during rescues, and many pilots can tell stories of firing on North Vietnamese churches that had large guns mounted in their steeples.

Still, he couldn't shake the photo. He flew 108 missions during two tours in Vietnam, many more significant than the failed rescue. He flew some of the first secret missions into Cambodia. He attacked Hanoi during the Christmas bombings of 1972. The stench of decaying bodies from the jungles below had seared his nostrils. He knew he had killed dozens, maybe even hundreds of enemy soldiers and probably some civilians.

Was the church photo just a proxy for latent guilt? That restless feeling that stirs inside good people forced to kill in war, no matter how noble the cause?

Whatever the reason, it was the 8- by 10-inch photo that haunted him.

De Vlaming left Vietnam a few months later, then flew with the Royal Air Force in England before retiring in 1988. He attended law school and went into practice with his brother in Clearwater.

As the years passed, he enlarged the photo and other pictures the intelligence officer gave him. He looked for clues in the shadows. He could see camouflage canopies hanging over a nearby walking trail. Was the village, only about 4 miles from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, hiding supplies for the enemy? The other photos clearly show people firing AK-47s into the air. Was the village an enemy stronghold?

But what if the building was a legitimate church? Had he hit it? Or destroyed it? The building was built like a barn and had a lean-to on the back. The only indication it was a church was the cross. It looked as if it would catch fire in seconds if hit with even one of his small smoke bombs. What if people were inside that morning? Had anyone been killed?

De Vlaming thought about it more and more as the years passed. He began showing the photo to his old flying buddies, asking what they thought. They could tell it was bothering him.

The photo dug deeper than he would allow wives and friends to get. For years, he kept it in his war effects. He sometimes took it out and studied it until he thought he could identity the genders of the people hiding under the trees. He was pretty sure one was a little boy looking skyward. De Vlaming eventually framed the photo and put it in his home office.

Sometimes he would just stare at the picture and let the questions swirl in his head.

• • •

Twenty years after the failed rescue attempt, a man walked into de Vlaming's office in Clearwater looking for legal help.

Ha Nguyen owned a boat lift-manufacturing business. A customer had tried to take advantage of him.

Nguyen (pronounced win) had supported the Americans as a helicopter pilot in South Vietnam during the war. When Saigon fell, he stuffed 39 people — including his father, sister and several cousins — onto his helicopter and flew to a U.S. aircraft carrier. Nguyen and de Vlaming became friends, often sharing war stories.

In 1997, Nguyen began returning to Vietnam every year. The fingerprints of war remained, but Nguyen could tell that the nation had healed.

Several years passed before Nguyen asked de Vlaming if he would like to return to Vietnam. De Vlaming thought about it, then decided he would go on one condition.

He showed Nguyen the photo.

"I'll go," he said. "But you have to help me find this church."

• • •

The mission was a long shot. The Vietnamese countryside is full of tiny villages. Many don't even show up on maps. Some have multiple names. Others don't connect to any main roads or were bombed into extinction during the war.

De Vlaming knew the village he sought was about 100 miles south of Hanoi. As he and Nguyen bounced down the back roads in a mini- van, de Vlaming consulted a military map from 1972 that showed the location of the mission. He clutched a handheld GPS unit.

In village after village, Nguyen questioned skinny farmers and fishermen about the photo and the church. No one recognized it. De Vlaming studied the countryside, but it never seemed to fit.

They were running out of villages when they pulled into Nghia An a group of about 50 families living along a river bank. It was getting late. De Vlaming knew this would likely be his last chance to find the church — to rest his soul.

He saw a new-looking cathedral, but no barnlike church. Another failed mission, he thought.

Nguyen saw an older man in a wool hat and thought if anyone would know of a phantom church from 30 years ago, it would be him.

The man started talking fast and pointed at the photo. De Vlaming couldn't understand the language, but he knew something was up. Nguyen listened, then turned to his friend.

The man recognized the church. In fact, he said the lean-to on the back of the church was the kitchen. The man should know, Nguyen told de Vlaming.

He built it.

• • •

De Vlaming's elation quickly turned to unease. He had found the right village — the one he may have bombed 34 years earlier. What if the church at the time was full of people and they had all burned alive? What if he had killed someone's child, or father? The country was well on its way to healing from the war, but these villagers might hold a grudge.

A crowd began to gather. Their voices became louder, almost excited. Nguyen tried to pacify them with a cover story: He said de Vlaming was a family member of Williams', the pilot who had been killed. He was looking for the place he had died.

Did anyone know of the rescue mission in 1972? Nguyen asked. A small boy stepped forward and said his grandfather's house burned in the war. More people encircled de Vlaming, who couldn't understand anything they were saying.

The villagers began pushing de Vlaming and Nguyen through the cluster of homes. De Vlaming's apprehension grew as the crowd surged through the village.

They stopped in front of a small house. A fishing net hung outside. A man stepped outside the door to see about the commotion. The villagers drove him back inside. De Vlaming ducked his head as the people pushed him in, too.

The occupant was a stooped, frail old man, barely 100 pounds and 5 feet tall. He didn't even reach de Vlaming's shoulders. He wore a drab shirt and sandals. His face was well-worn from decades in the rice fields. As the old man asked what was happening, his fellow villagers pointed to the ceiling.

There, on a large log that made up the foundation of the home, was a burn mark, about the size of a basketball. Nguyen asked the old man about it. He said that his house had been hit by a bomb in 1972, not long before Christmas.

Nguyen translated for de Vlaming. The old man's name was Nguyen Van Tin. His house had caught fire with 10 children inside as the American rescue pilots, including de Vlaming, streaked overhead on Dec. 10, 1972.

Tin knew that de Vlaming was the pilot who had hit his house — no matter the cover story he was using. De Vlaming didn't look like he lost a family member. He looked like a man in search of atonement, someone who needed to make things right — even if he didn't know why.

The old man was not angry. He knew the pilot had only been following orders.

Tin said he was at the church — which was not damaged — when the bombs hit his home. He came running to see that his home was in flames, but that his family had escaped. The village tried to put out the fire with water from a nearby well. Other homes also were hit. The smoke bomb burned several people, and at least one person died.

Most of Tin's home was destroyed. The foundation, including the log with the black charring, was used to rebuild. In later years, the modest church captured in de Vlaming's photograph was torn down and replaced with a large cathedral.

Tin's home was small, spare and clean. De Vlaming could tell that Tin and his wife were proud of it. De Vlaming's eyes fell from the burn mark to family photos on the wall, and finally to Tin. The harmless old man did not look like the enemy.

During all his missions in Vietnam, de Vlaming had never seen up close the people who lived and died below his plane. From thousands of feet above, they were only specks shrouded in smoke and jungle. In fact, the photo of the church was the clearest view he had ever had of the countryside — until now.

De Vlaming stepped outside.

And for the first time when it came to the Vietnam War, he cried.

• • •

POSTSCRIPT

Two years later, in January 2008, de Vlaming and Nguyen returned to Vietnam. De Vlaming, along with three family members and Nguyen's daughter, brought fishing nets, ponchos, blankets and lollipops for the village. They lugged parachute bags filled with trail mix and M&M's. Nguyen brought Vietnamese money to give to the villagers. De Vlaming donated a large marble Madonna to the cathedral. Tin and his wife invited them into their home and made tea. Through Nguyen, they shared stories about their families.

De Vlaming, now 64, still keeps the framed photo of the church in his office. He looks at it from time to time, but he doesn't study it as he once did. He's now at peace with what he sees in the frame.

Times staff writers Susan Taylor Martin and Catriona Stuart contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at tisch@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2359.

Chuck de Vlaming studied the photo above for the tiniest of clues. He saw a small boy under a tree. Three women on a path. An unidentified person seeking cover in the jungle. Other photos taken from his camera that day, including the one below, showed enemy soldiers firing into the sky.

THE MISSION

The attempted rescue of Hector Acosta took Chuck de Vlaming into North Vietnam, about 100 miles south of Hanoi. Rescue missions this deep into enemy territory were considered the most risky. When he returned three decades later, de Vlaming had no way of knowing how to find the church other than his old mission maps. An exhaustive search of the countryside led him to Nghia An, a village too small to be on most maps.



ABOUT THE STORY

For this story, St. Petersburg Times staff writer Chris Tisch interviewed Chuck de Vlaming several times. He also interviewed Ha Nguyen, Hector Acosta and Lou Campbell. Times staff writer Susan Taylor Martin visited Nghia An on a trip to Vietnam and interviewed Nguyen Van Tin. Tisch reviewed dozens of documents generated during and after the mission, as well as photographs and maps. He also listened to an audiotape of the mission that had been obtained by de Vlaming.

Vietnam veteran's search for peace began with angst over image 11/27/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 29, 2009 12:30pm]

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